The Bare Necessities of Life (and Research) – What Can’t You Live Without?

I was asked (by a local radio station) to comment on the media ‘research’ story of the week: What are the things in life we can’t do with out?

(Obviously a slow week in research).

The results were:

Top 20 Bare Necessities of Life

  1. Internet connection
  2. Television
  3. A cuddle
  4. A trustworthy best friend
  5. Daily shower
  6. Central heating
  7. Cup of tea
  8. An “I love you” every now and then
  9. A solid marriage
  10. Car
  11. Spectacles
  12. Coffee
  13. Chocolate
  14. Night in on the sofa
  15. Glass of wine
  16. A good cry every now and then
  17. A full English breakfast
  18. A foreign holiday once a year
  19. iPhone
  20. A pint

Looking down the list I noticed two glaring omissions. I’d put oxygen and water pretty high on my own personal list followed closely by food. So it’s clear that questions were asked in a particular way to elicit more than just the bare necessities of life!

Gender Differences and People Studying People

A lot of press coverage has made a lot of the gender differences in responses rather than gender similarities. It’s clear for items to have appeared in the top places in the list then both men and women need to be in agreement. It’s not possible to determine if there was any interview bias in how questions were asked. Were the prompts or examples the same or was there a subtle nudge in the desired direction. This happens more than we think in any research involving human attitudes. Whole books have been written about the effects of people studying people. Prior expectation on part of the researcher influences results. Notice that ‘a solid marriage’ figures highly in the results despite traditional marriage being on the decline. It suggests that the sample is weighted towards married people or else the marriage equality (gay marriage) debate has influenced the results. Would people really mention central heating if we were having a glorious summer?

So we really need to take this ‘research’ with a pinch of salt. The warning signs should be an over emphasis on gender differences. It’s standard in most universities for undergraduates to factor in a bit of gender mainly because it’s the first thing that springs to mind and it’s easy to collect the data. Careful analysis of most of the gender differences in psychological research reveals that the crossover, that is what we have in common is greater than that on which we differ. It’s clear from the present survey that relationships and human contact figure highly for both men and women. Many items listed are about the simple pleasures in life such as a cup of tea. Yes I know that cynics might argue that people only listed cuddles (at 3) when the internet (1) and the TV (2) broke down!

An Opportunity to Reflect on Your Life and Values

So rather than considering this as ground-breaking research illuminating the modern-day human psyche, just think of it as than just a bit of fun to launch a DVD (which it is). Use it as a moment for reflection.  What is really important to you? Are there some bare necessities in your life that are getting crowded out by other pressures and pleasures. I’m always amazed when holidaying that around 8pm every evening almost everyone stops to view the sunset. It’s something we rarely seem to do when back home. It’s easy to take things for granted in our lives so that we only miss them when they are gone. Back to oxygen and water again!

So grab a nice cup of tea (or a beverage of choice) and make your own list of the top 20 things that you can easily do to improve the quality of your life. What distractions do you need to switch off to enjoy these moments of pleasure?

(In conversation with Trish Adudu, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 15/6/13)

Links:

Advertisements

Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

Links:

Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (and other power tools).

All attempts at theorizing social life are, at the same time, works of autobiography

– William Simon, 1996

As we read a text. . . we produce something different, another text which is a translation

– Ian Parker, 1999

Pic: Sewing Machine - GO FASTER! GO FASTER!

Pic: Sewing Machine – GO FASTER! GO FASTER!

I was watching a re-run of the Australian version of Changing Rooms, one of the many home improvement shows conveniently gathered together on one Cable channel. An ‘expert’ was initiating his acolyte into the mysteries of the jig-saw. The expert explained ‘It’s like a sewing machine only a bit more manly’. I was immediately struck by the similarity of the sewing machine and the ‘more manly’ jigsaw. However, both are essentially power tools.

Thinking about the arbitrary nature of gender labels I recalled two questions from performance artist Laurie Anderson‘s film of her show Home of the Brave. In it she asks ‘Which is more macho: Pineapple or knife? Which is more macho: Light bulb or school bus? I’ll let you ponder those questions for a while. Read on. . .

At about the age of four or four and a half I was watching my mother on her sewing machine. It all looked a little space age to me, like something from a science fiction film. I was enthralled by this alien contraption with its roaring engine,and the sense of danger and excitement it evoked, and the little spotlight on the side. I remember saying to my mother ‘When I’m a girl, I’m going to have a sewing machine’ to which she replied quite flatly ‘You’re never going to be a girl’. Boy! She sure knew how to spoil the fun. I took this to mean that I would never own a sewing machine of my own. I was destined to a be one of life’s spectators. Now I cherished this little story for my years as early evidence of my gender transgression. It helped to explain why I never liked football. As Oscar Wilde says’ It’s a game for rough girls not delicate boys’.

Fast-forward fifteen years and I found myself drawn to Yoko Ono‘s ‘Painting for a Broken Sewing Machine’ in her book Grapefruit:

Place a broken sewing machine in a glass tank ten or twenty times larger than the machine. Once a year on a snowy evening. place the tank in the town square and have everyone throw stones at it

At the time I was working in a very dull insurance office and decided to impart the sagely wisdom from Grapefruit. One person got very annoyed trying to understand the ‘sewing machine piece’, of course, fuelled by me re-reading it and placing the emphasis on a different word each time and nodding in a ‘knowing way’. Eventually I was told ‘just get on with your work’. I suppose with the ‘sewing machine piece’ you either get it or you don’t. The people who did get it at the time were perhaps the ones who realized there wasn’t really anything to get. Writing this now, I’m struck by how the work I get on with and the time-wasting have in many ways traded places.

Over the years I’ve told my ‘gender transgression sewing machine story’ countless times. However, it wasn’t until I realised that it might be read as ‘text’ and therefore capable of translation that made me begin to question my interpretation.  My original translation was based on my prior conviction that my behaviour was somehow inconsistent with my assigned gender. It was time to take my sewing machine story out from under the glass (gender lens) or at least throw a few stones at it.

Having studied gender in great depth I realized how the concept ofgender constancyputs a very different spin on things. It’s not until about 5 to 7 years that children realize that they are stuck in a particular gender for life. Up until then they think it’s possible to cross back and forth.

I tried to remember what I liked about my mother’s sewing machine and I realized it was all about the speed. I liked the foot pedal and how it revved the engine. I remembered shouting ‘go faster, go faster’ and getting very excited by it all. Hey I was four and we didn’t have a car, so what’s a boy to do? So, far from being evidence of my gender transgression, the story could equally be one of gender conformity. Boys like fast cars, don’t they?

Still glued to the home improvements channel, a guy referred to the sewing machine foot pedal as ‘the accelerator’ and then another asked ‘where’s the clutch?’ In an episode of Naked Chef, ‘new lad’, Jamie Oliver justified his preference for his turbo-charged six-burner cooker over his mother’s ‘old-world range’ on account of  ‘being a boy’.

The need to ‘re-gender’ our power tools says a great deal about the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes. Such attempts re-iterate the deeply ingrained belief in the sanctity of binary gender and are, to a degree, apologies for gender transgression. Part of gender conformity is to learn the art of knowing what is macho and what is not. According to Laurie Anderson, a pineapple is more macho than a knife and a school bus is more macho than a light bulb. Of course they are arbitrary distinctions and I have tried these questions with students. The ‘correct’ answers are usually met with an indignant ‘who says so’? Invariably when attempting to ‘gender; objects, the discussion most often centres on the similarities to the penis. So that long, sharp, pointy powerful thing must be a boy. This exposes the societal blueprint that objects and emotions are gendered by ‘virtue’ of their similarity to the shape of genitals. Think about it: men are seeing as more ‘outgoing’, and women are seen as more’ inward looking’ or men wield and women yield, according to the stereotype. Are we just trying to live our lives according to the contents of our pants?

So, given that both the sewing machine and jigsaw are both power tools, which is more macho?

To this day I have never owned a sewing machine nor a car, nor a jigsaw. Furthermore, I’m happy to say that I still don’t like football!

The fabric often tears along ragged, often hastily sutured seams

– William Simon, 1996

Link:

Gender & Seven Deadly Sins

Gender Differences & The Seven Deadly Sins

I was invited to offer my thoughts on the recent news story regarding gender differences and the seven deadly sins for a short piece on  BBC Radio Leicester’s morning show.

I hadn’t heard about the story and was surprised to learn that the ‘research’ came from The Vatican. Apparently the ‘researchers’ had collected statistics from the confessional booth.

Now I don’t know much about the ‘ins and outs’ of the confessional booth but a key principle of research is informed consent. I wonder if the people entering the booth were told that their confessions would form part of a headline grabbing bit of research. I assume not.

Aside from this ‘cardinal research sin’, there’s a big question over how the sins were defined. Was ‘pride’ for women comparable to that of men? Who decided which confession should be lumped into which ‘deadly sin’. All in all it’s not really research at all but sadly it’s more likely to get into the newspapers than the real stuff.